It’s was a beautiful, sunny day in Glen Ellyn,
a west Chicago suburb. This place is a homey town and completely fun for exploring and enjoyment. It was a perfect place to meet up with a friend for lunch.
This was a month ago, a time when my outreach leader and I have our quarterly meeting where we talk about what’s going on in the Chicago world of human trafficking, sharing how our teams are doing, and speaking words of encouragement. I always look forward to it.
This specific time I was also meeting someone from Craigslist who I was selling a tablet to. While we were waiting for our food, he texted me that he had arrived at the cafe and was standing outside. I excused myself and walked out the front door, unsure of which sidewalk to walk down first.
I turned right, walking past several tables of people on lunch breaks enjoying the nice weather. I had only walked a few steps and didn’t see anyone yet, so I turned quickly to look the other way.
That’s when I saw an entire table of men watching me, just feet away. It seemed that conversation had ceased for the moment, and collectively, they were staring, gawking, at me. And they were definitely not looking at my face.
Immediately all my senses went on high alert as I quickly turned the other way and walked away, noticing my Craigslist contact. While we were doing the exchange, I was overwhelmed with a myriad of emotions.
I was hoping I could hide somewhere, perhaps find another way to go inside the cafe, but that was the only entrance. I walked past them again, trying not to look. Trying not to care.
But I was completely shaken. And it wasn’t as if this reaction was completely thought through and I had decided, “You know, this isn’t a good situation and that behavior isn’t right, so I should feel afraid, angry, and embarrassed.”
No, my reaction was involuntary it seemed. And it bothered me. And though I couldn’t process at that moment, I realized later as I drove home why this situation bothered and scared me so much.
You see, it wasn’t just one man doing that.
No, that happens all the time. I have to say I’m semi-used to it now. I know how to manage my emotions when it happens and am constantly aware of myself, knowing that if I had to protect myself from one man, I would. Like 2 days after this situation: I was walking home from Trader Joes and a man came out of a restaurant, and right after we passed cordial hellos he went on to stop and mentally undress me, all while trying to keep small talk, not once looking at my eyes. While it disturbed me, I knew all I had to do was keep walking, making sure he wasn’t following me, because, you never know. . .
But this was different. And it was more disturbing.
You see, every man at that table collectively and silently agreed that there was no dishonor in all of them shamelessly gawking, as if I were some sort of prey.
That causes me despair, not just because I didn’t feel safe anymore, not just because I couldn’t know which guy only does this in his head and which one will act on it, but because they are middle and upper class business men.
These are the men I work alongside every single day. They blend in perfectly to the society. Because, so it seems, every typical business man looks just like them. Well-dressed, have families, have good jobs, basically respectable.
Yet the reality is that I stand in front of them and give presentations and try to sell myself on my skill and intellect, knowing that I have to work as hard as I can to overcome the initial sexual appeal I seem to offer and have simply because I am a woman.
I remember what I wore that day, I dress I loved wearing and one that friends loved as well. And I find it saddening that my first reaction in this situation was, “Is it because of what I’m wearing? Is it because the way I am?”
Because when denigrated, I, along with our culture, always seem to ask first, “What did you do wrong?” And my greatest fear is standing up in court one day to defend myself in a sexual assault case and hearing the judge ask me, “So, what were you wearing?”
I was burning so much after that incident I decided to write this blog post. But then I didn’t. I was too afraid, it was just too embarrassing. Trying to explain objectifying culture based off this one experience? A little too risky.
But then, after this past weekend, I realized that there was more at risk here then my own vulnerabilities. There are many countless women who have gone through unspeakable tragedies at the expense of a surrounding culture that says, “It’s OK and normal to dishonor women because, you know, boys will be boys.” It has forced me to think deeper about this, about my own experiences.
And bring back realities of more than one experience. As I lay in bed a few nights ago, dwelling on the pervasiveness of this issue, I recalled an experience I had completely forgotten about for years.
I was a junior in college
and working part-time off campus to have some money to live on. It was a decent job and a good way to encounter the real work world.
I was roaming the aisles helping customers when a fellow classmate walked in. Though he had been in a small class with me the previous semester, I didn’t particularly know him too well. I remember us praying for him in class for a missions trip that he was going on overseas.
It was kind of crowded in the shop and we were both trying to get through the same aisle. Instead of backing up, I leaned against the counter to let him pass by. And as he did he grabbed my butt. And then kept on walking.
It was as if my body revolted against myself and I felt like throwing up. I ran into a section that was secluded and silently screamed into my hand. I was shaking, catching my breath, and angry as hell. It was as if every created emotion hit me all at once and my anxiety was over the top. I didn’t know what to do. I visualized myself going outside, where he now was, and kicking him as hard as I could. Maybe punching him in the face.
But . . . could I really do that?
Then the questions came. Was it that big of a deal? Would I be able to defend myself against the questions that would follow? Was it worth the shame? In my head, me admitting to him doing that was saying that there was something about me that cause him to do it.
At least, that’s what I was thought, perhaps what I was taught.
I grew up in a conservative Christian culture and my college was exactly that. In that world, there’s a high standard for dress, especially for females. I was taught that girls dressing inappropriately caused guys to stumble. And based off the fact that I got in trouble since puberty for immodesty (I’m tall and there’s more “of” me so that automatically brought more attention), I knew that the first question I would be asked if I tried to make any claims would be, “So, what were you wearing? Can you put that on? We’ll make a decision about this case after you do that.”
In that moment in the hidden corner of the store, I processed none of that completely. But intuitively, based off how I knew the world worked, I knew that my only decision to save myself from shame would be to do . . . nothing. Just work as hard as I can to forget it. Which I did. Until this past weekend.
Somehow telling the story removes it’s power. And I also realize now that to not call sexual assault by it’s name, is to allow that same guy to continue doing that same thing to more and more women. Except now, 7 years later, if he’s never been called out for it, who knows what he could be doing now. There’s a price we pay for silence. It’s a double-edged sword: we females risk our shame for talking, and we also risk continue abuse if we don’t. Somehow, we’re the ones that seem to always lose.
Thought I didn’t understand it at the time, I was sexually assaulted. That is wrong, and that is illegal.
But at that time? I sadly wasn’t entirely sure whose fault it was.
As I lay in bed reliving that whole situation, I thought, “I wonder how many unquestioned ‘guy talk’ sessions, how many hours of approved sexual conversations did he participate in before he felt the boldness to act on those words, to a girl he didn’t even know?”
Two years later I was in graduate school.
I had finished my first year and was taking a trip with my friend to get away at the beach. I was on a short flight and sat next to this guy who was probably my age, maybe slightly older. His friends in the back of the plane were rowdy and loud, probably intoxicated, but he was sober and rolled his eyes at their antics.
We didn’t have much conversation, but near the end of the flight he asks me a few questions about myself and my hobbies. He was kind of expressive and dramatic, so it was slightly funny listening to his stories.
Then out of nowhere he looks at my chest and says, “By the way, you have very nice breasts.”
I was so shocked, and I looked directly back at him and said with a dead-stare, “That was completely unnecessary.”
What was so interesting about this situation was how utterly shocked he was at my reaction, as if I should have been empowered and thankful for his open gratitude for my body.
He looked out the window and said, “Oh look, we’re about to land!” And then turned away from me the rest of the trip, obviously very uncomfortable.
My reaction? After wading through the myriad of emotions, the fear, the anger, the shame, everything. . . I again start feeling bad for standing up to him. I’m serious people. I felt like I had been mean to him, maybe there was a different way I should’ve handled it.
I had complete confusion about who was the one that should be embarrassed right now.
It was becoming a pattern, the ones most embarrassed are not the ones speaking these words and doing these acts.
If they’re not ashamed, if they see not problem with it, then is it . . . normal?
Though I didn’t realize it then, I was sexually harassed. That is wrong, and that is illegal.
Three years ago,
well after grad school and into the beginning of my work career, I found myself in a relationship that was an entire lie. His life revolved around exploiting people for his benefit. Work, relationships, community – you name it.
And I myself was in the center of it, one of his women living in one of his lives.
Though it was only a few months, I remember being in a lot of confusion and many days of experiencing self-loathing and disrespect. He literally knew how to make me feel terrible for who I was, and then be the hero who rescued me from that.
It’s pretty twisted, and not normal. And it’s what is psychologically known as a Narcissist. We throw around the term a lot, as if someone is a narcissist if they are just a selfish, self-absorbed person. That is only a partial definition. A Narcissist is a person with true distorted reality, where they are always the victim and always the hero. They live manipulation and find vulnerable people to be their conquests. So, be careful on how you use that term. It does not apply to every annoying selfish person out there.
As you can probably guess, living in this world causes a good amount of damage and plenty of emotional wounds.
When I finally got out, it was as if a light was turned on and I knew right away who he was because it was the exact profile of pimps and traffickers — he was just not that far down the path of evil yet. I just never thought someone like that could fool me.
But you know what? It actually took going through that to finally stand up for myself, to finally believe I wasn’t worth being dishonored.
I couldn’t play with fire anymore. I couldn’t awkwardly laugh at the kinda-crude jokes. The locker room chat, the boys will be boys acts, the eye staring . . . the whole culture that shrugs as it as “not really that bad” gives room for these kind of guys to exist, and live freely as they please.
Because they know they’ll never be questioned. I know, because I tried to. I tried to assert my beliefs, and he always had a sob story for his actions and life.
During this time I found out one of my friends had been raped many times over the course of 9 months. When it was all said and done, her abuser would not see a day in jail because the (in)justice system believed she “asked for it,” though it was simply her way of surviving and protecting herself, which is common in sexual assault cases.
Also during this time I remember having a managers meeting with the CEO and GM of our company. He was enthusiastically teaching us about client engagement and treatment. He decided to use an example: “Hey (manager), what would you do if you were at a bar and you saw a gorgeous girl you wanted to get laid with?
After a moment of tethered anticipation from the team, he exclaimed “You compliment her!” The GM laughed along. “Or, you know, give her some money.” Yes, that was their best way of explaining how to win customers over.
I was so lost in that moment, because these were people I knew and trusted. So, maybe this is just . . . the way it is? I guess maybe all guys are like that? It was hard to process, truly.
So after I came out of the other side in that toxic relationship, and started being more aware to my world around me, I realized that, no, it is not OK for you to treat me like this, or anyone else. In fact, no guy should be like that. I was furious I had been so deceived, and, as I came to realize, deceived for years. Deceived into believing that it’s acceptable to put up with behavior like that, whether in speech or actions.
I learned that abusive, manipulative behavior requires complete cut-off. For me to even vaguely stay friends would’ve communicated approval and opportunity for this to happen again. Yes, I forgave him. No, I did not keep friendship. Oh yes, he verbally repented and expressed sorrow, and I still walked away and I will not allow him back in my life.
Do you know why? Because true repentance requires sacrifice. It means loss. And he could never give up himself or his wants.
It was tempting. It was tempting to believe him when he said, “Well, we’re all sinners and what I did was terrible, so I’m asking God for forgiveness and I want you back because I know you’re a good, Christian, forgiving girl.”
It was through that experience that I found my calling, my whole calling.
I knew I was supposed to care for broken women and lead them into business, but now I had something I never had before: empathy. I knew how easy it was to get into that situation, and how hard it was to leave, and how broken your life is afterwards.
I also know that while God did not cause me that traumatic experience, He has redeemed it so beautifully. I was in long enough to feel the real pain, and He gave me freedom to use that experience to be a voice for others, to be a bridge of freedom. It’s led me into standing next to victims of sex trafficking and leading them to a new path and life.
Because this work and my own experiences, I’ve seen the dark side of potty-mouth language. The end of that road is death. It creates a safe passage for workers of evil, and inexplicable fear for it’s victims.
I found that not only were other men dishonoring me, but I eventually started dishonoring myself, with either silence or verbally laughing along. We females eventually, day by day, one unquestioned crude remark after another, start subconsciously believing that maybe this is the world we live in, and there’s nothing else to do but play that game and hope we don’t get hurt.
This is not all dark and despairing.
I’m thankful for bright sides, for good experiences, for men of valor. Some who may not blog, who may not speak, but live each day proclaiming honor to women around them by their consistent interest, respect and care for our souls, minds, and hearts.
2 weeks ago I met a man at church who I played softball with this past summer and we started chatting about business. Eventually I told him about the work I do in anti-trafficking. After speaking passionately about it for several minutes, Jeff says, “Wow, so what can I as a man do to help?”
My eyes got big, and I said, “Really?!” I wanted to hug him! My surprise was obvious, and I really didn’t know what to say. When was the last time a successful business man asked if he could help a cause where typically men were exploiting? Normally I just get sighs of sympathy.
It makes me sit a little higher, be a little more confident, when men stand up to actively protect women.
As I looked through my Facebook feed last weekend, I saw a post my friend Quantas wrote his thoughts in response to the recent display of sexual assault:
This makes me think of how much further we, as a society, need to progress to in how we treat women. The misogynistic, hyper masculinity, and overbearing patriarchy that was evident in his “locker room banter” has held women back for far too long. I know I’ve been complicit and an active participant in regarding women as less than equals, less than capable, and less than worthy of due respect.
It’s sad to see how half of our society has been held back from reaching their potential for most of mankind’s existence. It’s heartbreaking to think of how we’ve silenced women, treated them like objects, and held them up to impossible double standards. I’m on a mission to do better and call out others who don’t properly value women, be they male or female.
And that’s really all we want, to be treated as a person, not an object of temptation.
As I was growing and healing from my relationship with my ex, I was learning more and more what it meant to respect myself and understand my own inherent worth, no matter what anyone else said. A year ago I dated a friend for a few months who by example helped me understand these things better. While my ex was the epitome of disrespect, James was the complete opposite, the example of respect and honor for all people, including all women. It was a bit unusual to observe from up close, but I needed to see this “new normalcy” in live action.
I remember once, in a completely thoughtless moment, I made a somewhat suggestive comment about myself and how he probably thinks of me like that. He was immediately deadly serious as he said, “I don’t think like that.” It made me double-take, catching me by surprise. You mean I shouldn’t think of myself that way? And you don’t either? This was unusual for sure.
As I look back now, I realize that I was still having low expectations for honor from men. But not only that, I myself was placing disrespect on myself, that I was the sum worth of my body.
Him taking a stand like that for himself openly pronounced three things: “I am not disrespectful of you, I will not dishonor you, and you are worth more.”
And now, here I am, 29 years old, and finally “getting it,” that maybe I’m worth being honored both to my face and behind my back. That maybe I have disrespected my own self many years because I thought that was the only way to get by and be liked. That maybe not all men think of women as sexual objects. That maybe our culture can one day be a place where I can confidently stand in front of a room of men and be naturally respected for my mind and humanity.
A word to women
I’ve heard over and over these phrases: “That’s just the way it is,” and “I’m sure all guys talk like that,” and “This is all so hypocritical, trying to condemn someone’s actions and just look at our popular music — I’m not going to do anything.”
And then the overwhelming majority of us that simply sigh, “Why are we even surprised?”
To that I say,
When will you be surprised?
At what point will you allow yourself to be shocked?
Will it be when you hear your coworkers talking about the new secretary and who will be the first to get laid with her? Will it be when your 10 year old daughter comes to you and tell you about a man that touched her? Will it be when you find out your friend and neighbor was raped? Will it be when you realize a sex trafficking ring is being led out of a massage parlor 2 blocks from your house and they openly market that “young beautiful girls” are now working? Will it be when you learn of the child being sex trafficked in your subdivision?
To what is your response to these sisters of yours? Would you actually say them, “Well, you shouldn’t be surprised”?
Of course not, I hope. I hope you’d be shocked and surprised. But that’s the end of this road. Crude, disrespectful language + approved time = exploitation of women, of you, of your daughters, of your sisters, of your mothers.
Please, by all means, be surprised! Don’t lose the shock, even if it happens 100,000 times to you. Be outraged. Don’t be discouraged by the hypocrisy and have the courage to feel and love right through it.
It’s hard. It’s not popular and you may be thought of as “one of those emotional females.” But for us to be silent is to agree that it’s OK to speak or act in sexually objectifying ways.
You know what I think? I think we’ve lost our way. I think we’ve lost the purity of the Image of God we were made to be. It’s muddy and unclear, we’re subtlety told day after day, relationship after relationship, that we’re the problem. And the only way through it is to exchange the dishonor for power where we now use our bodies to get men to do what we want. By accepting dishonor and it’s cheap power, we in turn become the ones who now dishonor another.
You’re worth more. You are not a body, but a soul. Your freedom and empowerment comes from within, not without. You do not have to disrobe to be free.
I invite you — take the road less traveled by and search out your true value that is not tied to a person, an income, a compliment, a body type, or a life stage. It’s in one Person, and He will leave you completely whole.
A word to men
Verbally. Actionly. Thoughtfully.
I remember after breaking up with my ex that I sat with my brothers and their friends and told them, “Please, just hang out with some girls and let them know what it means to be treated right. Because so many of us don’t know what that looks like.”
Set aside your ego and express heart-felt admiration that has no objective other than to be genuine. Obviously, you can do this to men or women. But if you notice that a female in your community or circle is good at something, tell her so. If she has expressed a certain gifting, applaud that in front of other people. Let her know that men in her life (who have no romantic interest in her) care about her well-being and development in your community.
Also, let a woman lead you. Ask her for her advice, or an explanation on how to do something. Take a course from a female. Read a book by a woman author. Prove your non-bias by seeing if you can do some of these things without criticism and with encouragement.
Because your verbal statements about caring and valuing women are only believed when you actually act on them.
Lastly, realize that my story isn’t all that unique. Leave space in your conversations to allow women who have been sexually discriminated, abused, groped, or hurt to feel safe with you.
And you know what else that means? Not defending and standing with other men or women who discriminate, abuse, grope or hurt females.
You know, we’re listening. And for every defense of misbehavior, our barrier goes up a notch, and we know you would never be someone who would defend and protect us if we were the ones in court due to assault, having to answer the judge’s questions, “So what were you wearing?”
I look forward to the future.
I hope my daughters one day don’t have to face the same world I do because of my openness and willingness to challenge this culture. I think that’s why I find it worth it in the long run, because this is the most difficult post I’ve ever written.
I also pray for spiritual amnesia and innocence, that what was lost can be regained.
I also hope that each new story I hear from a survivor of trafficking isn’t just old news, that trafficking is never normalized. I hope to be a bridge to the freedom that God has for them.
There’s always hope. Each morning there can be purity of spirit and fresh joy. Redemption makes that possible, and that’s always our next step.